We’ve all heard the jokes about that painful period known as the mid-life crisis. That time when middle-aged men trade in the practical sedan for the convertible, take up sports they couldn’t really play in their twenties, and even quit their jobs looking for the meaning of life. It’s a quintessential stereotype and the plot of countless movies of the week. But here’s the thing. I don’t think this sense of unrest is confined to mid-life, nor do I believe it is solely a male phenomenon. No, this crisis can hit anyone at any time. And it leaves the person confused and wondering just what they are supposed do with their lives.
Now, I admit as middle-aged male I do have some experience with this condition. But as a coach and a father, I have also seen it with my clients and even with my son. Before you say anything, let me tell you most of my clients are not men. I work mainly with professional women of all ages. And almost all of them face this problem at one time or another. Seeing it in my twenty-six year old son supports my belief that can happen to anyone. It’s more prevalent than we think, and I would venture to say it occurs on a much broader level than we realize. It’s just that not many people are willing to talk about it. Many may not even recognize it is happening.
What is this dilemma we jokingly refer to as the mid-life crisis? Sure, it often occurs at middle-age, but it’s not predicated on age or gender at all. This crisis erupts when our values and goals are disconnected from our actions. For most of us that means our work is not fulfilling. Again, it doesn’t matter how old we are. If what we do does not support what we believe to be important, there is no way we can find satisfaction in our work. And because most of us–rightly or wrongly–define ourselves by what we do, if we are not satisfied in our professional lives it will be difficult to be satisfied in our personal lives.
So why does this crisis happen? Of course, the most understandable scenario is actually the middle-aged one. We work for years to become successful. That includes a good job, a nice home, a really cool car, perhaps even a vacation home or two. While we accumulate all this stuff, we don’t stop to think how it makes us feel. We just assume it will make us happy. It’s really all about us–ourselves. Once we call ourselves successful because we got all the stuff we wanted, we realize it’s not enough. There has to be more, because what we were striving for didn’t seal the deal.
Then there are the examples of women in their thirties, forties, fifties, and even sixties. They aren’t sure where they’re going (or where they got) is where they want to be or even where they should be. Regardless of the individual story, each person is trying to find some deeper meaning for what they do. How can they be satisfied when they are questioning the value of what they do every day?
None of these people is facing a midlife crisis. They are, however, experiencing a crisis of meaning. They have not taken the time to explore what brings them joy on a deeper, more emotional level. In some cases that is intentional because the thought of deep self-reflection is too frightening. For some it isn’t a question of avoidance. They just haven’t taken the next step in self-development. For whatever reason, they have not recognized their actions no longer align with their actions. Perhaps more accurately, their values have evolved while their daily actions remain the same.
Whether you are starting out like my son or planning retirement like many of my friends, it might help to step back and think about what makes you feel good. Not physically, but emotionally. Perhaps helping others brings you great satisfaction. Perhaps learning new things or personal development lights you up. One thing is certain. Following a career path mainly for the monetary rewards it provides will leave you hollow in the long run.
Now, all this talk about following your passion may sound nice, but what if you are working because you need to support yourself. What if you don’t see a lot of options? In that case, you can change your perspective so your work aligns with your values. Working as a server in a restaurant? Match that with your desire to help others feel better. You’re not just putting food on the table. You are creating a pleasurable experience for others to enjoy. Perhaps you are an executive in a corporation. Focus on providing professional development rather than just the bottom line if helping others learn and grow is important to you.
It doesn’t necessarily matter what you do for a living. Once you realize what is important to you, you can incorporate those values into your daily routine. If you are starting out you may be able to choose a career that compliments your values. If you are further down the career path and don’t want to face a reboot, you can change your perspective.
Regardless of where you are in your journey, aligning your actions and goals to your values is a sure way to prevent a painful crisis of meaning.